Wisconsin in Autumn
So my manager passes me at work a few weeks back and says, “Oh hey! I finally started watching Making a Murderer last night. I got all excited when I heard everyone talking and told my wife, Tosha talks like that!”
Like everyone else with a subscription to Netflix, this winter I spent a solid week deep in the vortex of the you-could-not-pay-me-to-stop-watching documentary, Making a Murderer. And for a hot minute, things got pretty bad. It totally consumed me. I thought about it All Of The Time. And not even consciously. I was able to go about my day, function at work, have normal conversations; but all the while, that documentary, aka, reality for other people, played on repeat in the dugout of my mind, constantly threatening to drown out the soundtrack to my own life. And every time I mistakenly thought I was on the road to recovery, someone would casually (or more often, not so casually) mention it, and I’d fall right back in the rabbit hole.
My imagination imploded, trapping the documentary key players as stand-ins for actual humans in my real life. Steven Avery’s mother played the role as my own Gramma, sitting in her rocking chair after a long day of life on the farm, slightly uncomfortable with any direct attention.
Brendan Dassey played the role of one of my more challenged students in the Milwaukee Public School system, who would do or say anything to someone considered “authoritative” just to STOP the uncomfortableness of feeling stupid for not knowing what the hell was going on, to “get out of trouble,” to “do the right thing,” with no regard, no cognitive ability to understand consequences of actions, even if those actions were only words, words which could’t be unsaid.
Prosecutor Kratz stood in for that creepy man who called my house one morning, breathing heavily into the phone, asking if I wanted to touch his penis. It was 6:30 am, and I was ten, getting ready for a normal day of 5th grade. I remember how scared I was to tell my parents, as if I had done something wrong.
Detective Lenk and Andy Holborn filled the roles of the power-tripping police officers who arrested us, and I am talking, aggressively handcuffed and thrown against a brick wall arrested us, for zero legit reason, unless, “Recreating a Hilarious Scene and/or Verbally Defending Yourself Against An Impatient Stranger Waiting For The Secret Bathroom, Whom, Upon Your Eventual Exit, Accuses You of Being Fat And Turns Out To Have A Boyfriend As A Police Officer” is a crime.
But we’ll get to that.
I lived in Manitowoc County when Steven Avery was arrested for the rape we later learned he did not commit. I was five-years-old.
Twenty years later, while teaching high-school in Milwaukee, I remember watching the news story about his arrest in the Teresa Halbach murder, mostly paying attention because of his ties to Manitowoc, the county in which I used to live, (even if I was only five years old, this is how Wisconsin people operate, we get inappropriately excited about meaningless random connections, even negative ones, you know, like how I lived a block away from Jeffrey Dahmer’s house while I was teaching in Milwaukee) and based on the initial evidence reported via TMJ4 news, I remember feeling skeptical about his arrest. I then remember hearing about his nephew’s “confession,” accepting it as the final truth, and without much further thought, deciding Steven Avery was obviously guilty; no point in arguing with those “facts.”
And then I moved on with my life.
Because it’s that easy for the unaffected. The uninvolved. The unrelated. The un-accused.
Watching the series is gut-wrenching, eye-opening, terrifying, frustrating, all of the -ings. It’s the place where that icky feeling in your stomach was born. Adding to the weirdness is the spotlight on a unique slice of Wisconsin life, particularly the life of a certain demographic that a lot of people not in that demographic too often just pretend doesn’t exist. Or perhaps existence is acknowledged, but care is taken to never cross paths. But there is no denying it. I see a sliver of my childhood in that documentary, neighbors of the past, a complicated web of life forks not taken, whether by choice or opportunity. My best friend’s family in high school even owned an auto salvage yard, not all that different from Avery’s, except it was called Yaeger’s. Because, you know, they’re the Yaeger family. The accents heard in the documentary are very real. The questionable hair, the interesting clothing choices, the landscape, the lifestyles. All very familiar (yet still questionable and interesting).
Before I continue, I want to make a few disclaimers:
– I have no idea what actually happened.
– I am not saying Steven Avery is innocent or guilty.
– But I do not believe he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, which is technically the only constitutional way to convict someone of a crime.
– Because if OJ Simpson can get off…
– It is not beyond my realm of belief that people who are supposed to be good and do the right thing, are sometimes awful and do the wrong things.
Some people are good at their jobs. They follow all the rules, do the right thing. They are objective, get promoted, win awards. And some people are terrible at their jobs. They break all the rules, take advantage of the weak, subjectively point fingers at innocent people, lie, cheat, steal, bend the truth to fit their picture of reality.
Chances are, you’ve experienced your fair share of bad teachers, bad mechanics, bad contractors, bad lawyers, bad servers, bad consultants, bad politicians, bad doctors, bad journalists, chefs and employers. This is why things like Angie’s List, Trip Advisor and Yelp exist.
For the most part, as individuals we can choose our schools, mechanics, contractors, lawyers, servers, consultants, politicians, doctors, journalists, chefs and employers.
We don’t get to choose our police.
And I think we’ve all watched enough Law & Order to realize we can’t exempt Law Enforcement from People Who Are Terrible at Their Jobs, just because they’re meant to be the good guys. And just like any job, sometimes it’s all about who you know.
Without further ado, I bring you:
Making a Delinquent
It was a sunny autumn Saturday, September 2008. Three friends, Lisa, Libby and Tosha were enjoying a beer-soaked Badger football game viewing party at the late Stadium Bar & Grill. It’s the kind of outdoor event that hauls in dozens and dozens of fancy porta-potties to handle all of the people consuming all of the beverages needing to pee all of the time.
We soon found ourselves in that exact predicament: we felt the need to pee.
The Stadium was so great for so many reasons, one being the infamous Secret Bathroom. No sign, no picture, nothing indicating that one single, beautifully inviting toilet existed beyond a wider than normal, heavy wooden door. Those who knew of this toilet, did not speak of the toilet, out of fear of it not being available when duty called. They just smugly eyed the twenty-person line for Ladies Room, a line in which they would never wait, until the coast was clear, and when no one was looking, quietly slip behind the huge door. It was also the kind of bathroom that gaggles of giggling girls entered to do their business as a group. Which probably explains the demise of the Secret Bathroom, as it soon became Common Knowledge.
Probably walking to the Stadium circa 2010. With a UW marching band dude. I held his hat and he played us a song.
Sometime around this transition to Common Knowledge, we found ourselves standing in line for the Secret Bathroom for much longer than usual. Much to the delight of our bladders, the door finally opened, vomiting out the aforementioned gaggle of girls, in exchange for me and my friends (we don’t travel in a gaggle). Within 22 seconds, impatient pounding from the other side of the giant wooden door began, and we could faintly hear more girls telling us to hurry the off up. Confused, we wondered if we were mistaken for the first gaggle of girls. Perhaps they didn’t see the skilled exchange of Secret Bathroom patrons. We joked that for every insult, we would take one minute longer.
We didn’t actually take any more time than usual, I mean, whatever the normal time is for three adult women to take turns peeing on one toilet, that’s how long we took. None of us are really mirror people, so it’s not like we stood there reapplying makeup and doing our hair. In fact, under normal circumstances, I’m actually genuinely proud of how little time it takes me to do my thing when, especially when there is a line of people waiting for a stall. I always walk out like, “That’s how it’s done, ladies. You’re welcome.” I mean, I don’t actually say it. But I think it, as I imagine the other girls gazing at me in silent admiration, well done, you, well done.
When we opened the door, exactly three-people-peeing minutes later, a young, very blonde girl smugly said, “Oh. No wonder it took you so long. You’re so fat.”
Since I was the one who opened the door, I could only assume she was referring to me. After quickly abandoning the attempt to understand her logic, I remember looking down at myself slightly confused, and sort of shrugging my shoulders. I guess maybe I had put on some extra lbs, whatever, but mmmmm would we call it fat? Maybe she’s confusing “over 21” with “fat.” Meh, ah well, time for a beer!
But before I could even look up from my newly fattened body, I saw a blur flash pass my eye and felt pressure on my back. Libby had come flying from behind me, fist-first into the Bitchy Blonde girl’s face.
“Don’t call my friend fat!”
Did I mention alcohol was involved? Because John Barleycorn was the fourth (wo)man in the bathroom that day.
A glimpse into a Day in the Life at the Stadium. In case you are wondering, we were yell-singing Hansen’s mmm-bop.
After a flurry of excitement, well-meaning patrons separated Libby and the Bitchy Blonde, no more punches were thrown, but plenty of words were exchanged. You know how vicious intoxicated adult women can be to each other. Bitchy Blonde kept shouting “My boyfriend’s so hot and he’s gonna come wreck your ass,” which I thought was a very strange threat at the time. In front of all these people? Uh, that’s great, I’ll watch my back…er…ass.
Then when I was face-to-face with a brick wall, hands tied tightly behind my back with plastic cuffs, staring at Lisa who was in the exact same position, I realized what she had actually been shouting:
My boyfriend’s a COP and he’s gonna come ARREST your ass.
Shame, he wasn’t even hot.
The thing is, yes, Libby had thrown a (well-deserved?) punch. She paid her fine, accepted the consequences of her actions without another word. But Lisa and I had truly done nothing wrong. Yes, we exchanged some unpleasantries for certain, definitely needed to wash our mouths out with some soap afterward, but nothing illegal or even harmful to those girls, unless their utter inability to handle what they were dishing out counts. I’m not proud of everything that went down that day. In hindsight, would I have handled this different? Absolutely. But then again, I wouldn’t have this super cool story to tell, sooo…
Fast forward to the day of case review, where the accused sit in this big open room with a bunch of different district attorney’s, who call your name, eventually. Lisa’s name was called first. She got the young male lawyer, probably right out of law school, on second thought, maybe still in, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they chat quickly, case dismissed, obviously. I scanned the rest of the DAs, hoping I got the same one, but especially hoping I did not get the old man approaching 100, his entire demeanor all crotchety, like this was the last place he wanted to be, and we were the last people he wanted to be dealing with.
Old Man Attorney called my name. Of course.
He handed me my police report, which I was able to read for the first time. I began to piece together why Lisa and I were actually arrested. I literally laughed out loud for much of it, which likely indicated to Old Man Attorney that I was not taking this very seriously. But seriously, this could not be serious.
Turns out, Bitchy Blonde had called Boyfriend Cop, who swooped in as her knight in shining armor to arrest Libby’s ass. Fair enough. What I don’t understand is why the Super Troopers drummed up a pretty entertaining retelling of how Lisa and I were beating each other’s ass. Like, my Lisa? Lisa my friend? I was arrested for beating up my best friend? Did Lisa know this?
For your reading pleasure:
Two girls = me and Lisa. Pulling hair? Throw punches at each other’s faces?! And by “leaned” he means “slammed unnecessarily aggressively.”
We were re-inacting the hilarious Bathroom incident for our friends. But I am so glad the officer was there to tell me what I was REALLY doing.
Unfortunately my favorite excerpts did not quite match up with Old Man Attorney’s favorite excerpts. Obviously he focused on the ones that made me look like a terrible person, and unfortunately happened to be the only semi-accurate pieces of the report.
Old Man Attorney: Did you in fact say, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with?”
Me, sheepishly: I mean well, I may have, but I was pretty –
Old Man Attorney: *Raises hand for silence*
And did you in fact say, “I hope you like your job?”
Me: *blink* blinkblink* *blink* I mean, I probably diiiid say that, but here’s the thin-
Old Man Attorney: *Hand*
More silent reading.
Well, let’s set a court date.
Since he wouldn’t listen to me, I am making you. When things get sticky, everyone has that Fight or Flight response. I will be the first to admit, I operate in full Fight mode almost every time, but especially under the influence. I literally put on my armor, my emotions take the wheel, and I let the alcohol do the driving. The only thing that resembles Flight is my logical reasoning – and that flies right out the window. I was fairly well-behaved until I was wrongfully arrested. Then I just got pissed at the injustice of it all. Yes, while I was forcefully hand-cuffed and thrown against a brick wall, I said those totally ridiculous things or something like it; things which I would have never said, had the police not gotten it wrong in the first place.
Years later at the Stadium again, chatting up the Police, probably telling him our super funny story about that one time we got arrested at the Stadium.
A few days later I got a call from a different DA stating that my case had been dismissed, citing the fact that Lisa and I were identified as the exact same person in our police reports, and our police reports were copies of each other. Meaning Lisa and I had apparently been the same person guilty of the same crime. Which is even more impossible than the reality of neither of us actually committing the crime at all.
She genuinely apologized and mentioned it wasn’t the first time this had happened and I should consider filing a complaint. I thought about how rough they were. How aggressively they dragged us out of the bar, how forcefully they shoved us against the wall of the bar (Lisa claims her shoulder is still screwed up) how my circulation was cut off from the plastic ties and the officer had to cut them off with a knife before my time was up.
I should file a complaint.
But like most should have’s, it faded away into Didn’t Happen, and here I am, still talking about it.
Again, I’m not declaring Steven Avery guilty or not guilty. I’m relieved the burden of being in that deliberation room wasn’t mine. But what bothered me the most about the whole documentary was the blind faith in an institution made up of human beings. So many thought lines of, “You better watch what you’re saying,” and “do you realize what you are accusing our fine, upstanding Po-Lice of doing?” Come on Wisconsin, I know we’re not New York or LA. I know we have police officer husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. In small communities, often times the only thing separating people like Steven Avery and Detective Lenk, is a badge and opportunity. Status and stereotypes. Not intelligence. Not morals. Not decency. Lenk isn’t a better person than Avery because he is a police officer.
It’s not totally insane to believe police officers might do what they do for reasons that have nothing to do with upholding the law. It’s not out of the question that a police officer may not always do the right thing, simply because they wear a badge identifying them as the good guys. It’s not crazy talk to think people in power might abuse that power. I’m disappointed that I even have to point that out. Police officers are just like us. They do things to help out the people they care about. They make mistakes. They get things wrong. They are human.
And I have the police report to prove it.
I don’t hate the police. I love them when they are not arresting me.